Over the past few years, I’ve tended to preface my posts about things that make me happy with some variation of, “We’re living in hard times, so the things that give us joy are all the more precious.” Since I’ve gotten into that habit, times haven’t gotten much better. Instead, they’ve gotten worse. Right now, they’re about as bad as they’ve ever been in my lifetime. I don’t know of anyone who isn’t suffering, at least on some level, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Beyond a doubt, our lives have changed, and we’ve been seeking out ways not only to stay healthy but to make life bearable within our social-distancing cocoons.
My surest lifeline has always been, and (I know now) always will be, fiction — stories that become a part of my consciousness even as they direct my focus outward, away from the anxieties that threaten to cripple me. When stories take my imagination on journeys beyond the here and now, I feel how much more there is to life than this present moment. Even though it can sometimes seem like it, I — we — won’t be stuck here forever.
My husband, the best quarantine companion I could ask for, has suggested to me that we should each share with one another movies and TV shows that the other hasn’t seen. First up (I’d seen it, he hadn’t) was a DVD set of the late 1970s classic miniseries I, Claudius. I’d forgotten just how involving this superb piece of historical fiction is. If it were fantasy, it would doubtless be labeled grimdark, since the ancient Rome it depicts is smotheringly decadent, all its characters are deeply flawed (Derek Jacobi’s noble but often foolish title character and Brian Blessed’s blustering but good-nature Augustus being the most sympathetic), and most of them are downright evil. But the series is so well-acted, and the dialogue so smart and often darkly funny, that I love it anyway. Perhaps I just find grimdark more entertaining on the screen than on the page. After we’d finished the series, Matt showed me Robert Altman’s The Player, a story nearly as cynical and bitter, set in modern-day Hollywood. Though I’ll never love it quite as I do I, Claudius, I found it fascinating.
Now, however, we’ve started binge-watching a series as different as can be imagined: Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock. I still find it the most delightfully girl-friendly family show of the 1980s, with the absence of gender prejudice in the Fraggle community and the presence of fun characters like the hyper-energetic Red, the dreamy Mokey, the lore-keeping Storyteller, and, perhaps most unique of all, the oracular Marjory the Trash Heap. Marjory is like the Sibyl of Greco-Roman mythology, but she also happens to be a gigantic sentient pile of garbage with a heart of pure gold. She gets some of the best moments in the first few episodes.
And, of course, I have my books.
Two I have recently finished, Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, are Hugo nominees for Best Novel, and I can confirm both nominations are richly deserved. I would be happy if either won. January, with its sparking prose, its flawed but smart and imaginative protagonist, and its story of doorways between worlds and a struggle between those who would open the doors and those who would see those doors destroyed, has my heart. Empire, with its more mature and level-headed protagonist trying to navigate a labyrinth of I, Claudius-like politics while remaining true to herself and her mission as Ambassador, has my head. Both have set a high bar for my remaining reads of the year.
Yet all the books I’m currently reading stand a chance of meeting that bar, or at least coming near it. Here’s a run-down:
The Sword of Kaigen (M.L. Wang)
Fantasy readers tired of the same old medieval-European settings should find much to intrigue them here. In Kaigen, we find technology akin to modern- day but cultural mores that resemble medieval Japan. It is, alas, one of those fantasy cultures where simply being born a woman is a great misfortune, and the degrading misogyny to which heroine Misaki is subjected by her repellent husband and even more loathsome father-in-law is quite painful to read about. But Misaki has iron within. Husband and father-in-law don’t succeed in wearing away her sense of self-worth. Just when it seems like they might, help enters the scene in the unlikely form of her cheerful, indomitable sister-in-law, Setsuko. I’m admittedly not far in — around 30%, and it’s a long book — but already Wang has depicted relationships between women as powerful. That, the strong prose, and the protagonist keep me reading, despite my discomfort with the misogyny level.
The Winged Histories (Sofia Samatar)
This is one of those books that envelops a reader slowly. It takes time to figure out just what plotline its characters are moving through. We learn names, but only over time does it become clear how they fit into the larger picture. Samatar’s interest is, first and foremost, character — specifically, four different women affected by a military conflict. Through their voices and their observations, she shows us who they are, employing some of the most exquisite prose I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I’m taking my time with this one. Samatar’s writing style, much like Patricia McKillip’s, demands an observant, reflective read.
A Brightness Long Ago (Guy Gavriel Kay)
Kay’s prose is not quite as intricate as Samatar’s, but it’s nonetheless beautiful and involving. He takes a broader approach to the military conflict in his story, so that it’s the least intimate of my current reads. Yet I’m intrigued by the canvas he unveils and the characters that move through it. To my satisfaction, Kay has improved at writing female characters since the days of the not-that-great-in-this-regard Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. In one sequence, a female healer saves the life of an injured woman who has just assassinated a perverted, murderous aristocrat. As the recovered patient takes her leave, the healer reflects: “It was a good thing. . . that there were women working to widen the world in different ways. They could nod at each other in passing, in recognition, then carry on expanding what was allowed” (105). It’s one of the most hopeful passages I’ve read from a book set in a society with limiting gender roles.
The Unspoken Name (A.K. Larkwood)
Csorwe is not your usual female protagonist. For one thing, she isn’t exactly human. (She has tusks! Tusks, I tell you!) For another, at the start of her story she’s closer to anti-heroine than heroine: she’s not quite sure what she believes in, and her sole emotional tie is to a mentor of rather dubious character. She works to help him accomplish his goals without bothering to question whether those goals are right or just. But that’s what makes her so intriguing. She has a moral journey to make. In the latest scene I’ve read, she is forced to choose between claiming the object her mentor sent her to retrieve or saving the life of an innocent captive. It’s her “All right, I’ll go to Hell!” (Huckleberry Finn) moment, in which she breaks the code she’s been trained to obey and shows us she has the stuff of heroes in her before she sees it herself. I can’t wait to see where her journey takes her next.
I’ll let A.K. Larkwood herself have the final word.